- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

McCain’s Foreign Policy Record

Sen. John McCain died [1] from brain cancer over the weekend:

John S. McCain, the proud naval aviator who climbed from depths of despair as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to pinnacles of power as a Republican congressman and senator from Arizona and a two-time contender for the presidency, died on Saturday at his home in Arizona. He was 81.

McCain served in Congress for more than thirty years. In that time, he went from the Vietnam veteran who warned against an unwise entanglement in Lebanon to becoming the most vocal and predictable advocate for every bad military intervention under the sun. The longer he stayed in Washington, the worse he became. His career is nothing if not a cautionary tale to other would-be legislators. He specialized in matters of national security and foreign policy, and yet he had a remarkable knack for misjudging practically every major foreign policy issue of the last three decades.

McCain distinguished himself as a consistent proponent of unnecessary foreign wars in the name of American “leadership,” and the country was always worse off when the president heeded his recommendations. He was a leading cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya, and he was wrong about both. He was also a Kosovo war supporter and has been a steadfast [2] defender [3] of U.S. [4] support [5] for the Saudi war on Yemen [6]. When Georgia escalated a conflict with Russia, he insanely proclaimed [7], “We are all Georgians” and gave the impression that he was willing to risk WWIII over a dispute that had nothing to do with us. Despite his constant demands for more “action,” the U.S. did not intervene in Syria as forcefully or as soon as he wanted. He was even once quoted praising the Saudis for their role in Syria. “Thank God for the Saudis,” he said [8]. He was famously hawkish on Iran (“bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran,” he sang), and in recent years went so far as to jump on the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) bandwagon [9]. This is a record of horrible judgment and even more horrible costs for the people in the countries affected by the policies he supported.

If McCain had his way, the U.S. would have been in even more wars for much longer than we already were, and even his admirers can’t deny that. For the last twenty years of his political career, McCain was an irrepressible champion of reckless U.S. meddling around the world. It was an enormous stroke of good fortune for the U.S. and the world that his 2008 presidential bid failed. If you believe that U.S. foreign policy is far too militarized, overreaching, and destructive, McCain did a great deal to make and keep it that way.

The one big thing that McCain got right in his Senate career was his opposition to torture. Because he had suffered from the use of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he understandably had no patience for the euphemisms and rationalizations of his pro-torture colleagues. This was the most significant disagreement he had with his party, and in the end it is probably the only issue where his willingness to break with his party from time to time really mattered. McCain had the ability to put principle ahead of party on occasion. Unfortunately, he did not do so all that often, and when it came to foreign policy the principles he followed were usually very bad ones.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "McCain’s Foreign Policy Record"

#1 Comment By Partial Agreement On August 27, 2018 @ 2:13 am

“It was an enormous stroke of good fortune for the U.S. and the world that his 2008 presidential bid failed.”

Yes. But Obama was in some ways as recklessly interventionist as McCain himself. Libya, Syria, Yemen …

#2 Comment By col. bogey march On August 27, 2018 @ 3:03 am

“This was the most significant disagreement he had with his party, and in the end it is probably the only issue where his willingness to break with his party from time to time really mattered. “

How, exactly, did it “matter”? We still got Pompeo at State. We still got Pompeo’s hand-picked successor, a known torturer, running CIA. McCain’s support for the interventions is inextricably linked to the torture regime.

So sorry, I’m not buying your characterization of his anti-torture stance as having “mattered”. All it really did was mark him, in the eyes of his disgusting colleagues, as being a little wobbly on torture because he’d had a hard time as a POW in Vietnam. In other words we can safely ignore him on the subject and get on with it …

McCain’s position on it didn’t matter at all.

#3 Comment By Stephen Pickard On August 27, 2018 @ 7:47 am

You got it right. History will not be kind to this man.

#4 Comment By Jessica On August 27, 2018 @ 8:24 am

Thank you for not doing the usual post-death hagiography. NPR did it and it was dismaying.

#5 Comment By Alan Vanneman On August 27, 2018 @ 8:39 am

McCain was a voice against torture who had a moral authority that others lacked, and it was to his credit that he spoke up clearly and persistently on the topic, even though Bush, Rice, Cheney et al. pretended not to hear him.

It’s also to his credit that he voted against Paul Ryan’s plans for the demolition of the Affordable Care Act, although I would admire him five times as much if he had done the same to Ryan’s tax “reform” package which was easily as objectionable as the first bill. McCain’s cowardice on that issue, displaying fealty to people whom he owed nothing and who would do nothing for him was painful to behold. He enjoyed being a “maverick” but sustained exertion was beyond him.

#6 Comment By Jeff On August 27, 2018 @ 9:52 am

Thanks for reminding folks that McCain’s record was far from the hero he supposedly was. Add the ill informed introduction of Palin to the national stage, and we have a clearer idea of his long term influences to our politics.

#7 Comment By Jon On August 27, 2018 @ 10:21 am

Thank you for this expose. Although well known, the late Sen. McCain’s record on foreign policy must be underscored amidst the accolades and eulogies dominating the media today.

His departure from this mortal coil does not mark the end to military adventurism. Unfortunately, many more fools are standing in line waiting to take the lead and continue this debauchery in American foreign policy.

When will this saber rattling cease! When will veterans elected to high office tired from what they have seen in combat raise their voices declaring, “there has to be an alternative?” Instead, they follow the late senator’s lead all to the last of them clamoring for war and the deployment of America’s soldiers to fight on foreign shores.

#8 Comment By who did what On August 27, 2018 @ 10:21 am

That photo … a rogues gallery.

#9 Comment By collin On August 27, 2018 @ 12:10 pm

Several points:

1) Outside of torture, I do tend to agree that he was way to hawkish.
2) He was exceptionally good at working the press and very likable. Very few people disliked him. He will be remembered fondly especially since ‘deal-making’ Senators are no longer around.
3) I do think this level of competence was Senator and his Prez runs had a lot of bad timing.
4) His choice of Sarah Palin was probably not good as it put her in the national spotlight before she was ready. (I still think she had potential in 2008 but needed more experience as governor and Sunday shows before national politics.)
5) He would have lost the 2008 no matter what VP was chosen anyway. McCain was good at working the press but not as well as Obama. The issue that won him the Primary, Iraq war support, turned out not to be the most important issue of 2008 Prez election.
6) Considering his experience with the Keating Five I was surprised he did not understand the 2008 Financial Crisis very well. (Romney would have the right nominee in 2008 although he likely loses.) There was plenty I did not like about Obama choices on the Financial Crisis but he did seem to understand it fairly well.

#10 Comment By b. On August 27, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

“The one big thing that McCain got right in his Senate career was his opposition to torture.”

As opposition goes, was he in any way more effective than the “Gang of Four/Eight” of Congressional majority/minority leaders and committee chairs – Pelosi, Harman, Bob Graham, Rockefeller IV, Porter J. Goss, Pat Roberts, Richard Shelby among them – that were fully briefed on US Torture and did absolutely nothing about it?

I do not remember McCain challenging his own party over the substance of the cover-ups – including the destruction of evidence – or even challenging Obama on strenuously “looking forward not backward”.

The “Maverick” was a political con, and as cons go in this nation, it was not even a particularly sophisticated one. The press built McCain’s fame the same way they built Trump’s – in a symbiotic relationship that profitably improves ratings for everybody involved by manufacturing controversy and escalating it to marketable drama.

#11 Comment By Baldy On August 27, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

I agree completely with this post regarding his awful foreign policy, at least the last twenty years of his career. That being said I have to take issue with Jeff’s implication that he was not a hero. There may have been nothing heroic about his legislative career but we don’t have to undermine legitimate acts of heroism because we disagree regarding policy.

It doesn’t make his hawkishness any less damaging but to me it is less morally reprehensible to advocate military action when you have been willing pay the price yourself. I want to puke when chickenhawks like Bolton, Cheney, Gingrich, Trump etc. talk tough, with Mccain I was more just disappointed. In his absence we are going to get people just as hawkish, just devoid of any pretense of decency.

I also appreciated that he didn’t have his head up conservative media’s hind den.

#12 Comment By Roy Fassel On August 27, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

McCain was a pretty good Senator for the state of Arizona. He had a bit of Goldwater running in his veins. McCain would not have been a good President. Imagine VP Palin, one heartbeat from the oval office. That reflects his decision making on big issues. That is not to deny his bravery in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, is was much better than the RINO Party members of today. Sad.

#13 Comment By Scott Smith On August 27, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

I suspect that McCain spent the rest of his life searching for the American victory that never came in Vietnam.

#14 Comment By Mark Krvavica On August 27, 2018 @ 9:20 pm

I voted for the Libertarian candidate for U.S. President in 2008, Bob Barr seemed good at the time. McCain’s opposition to torture was his saving grace.